A hooded figure riding a black unicorn emerged from the trees. Shadows pooled inside the hood and concealed his face, but Lydia could feel the weight of his regard.
Kimi made a hissing sound. “The dark rider!”
“Hmm… you made good time. I thought I was still ahead of you.” His tone was musing and his voice echoed oddly, as if distorted somehow. His head turned towards Kimi who was standing between him and Andrew. Her fur was on end as she growled at him. “And I see Iâ€™m too late.” He folded his arms. “You should go home. Youâ€™re out of your depth here.”
“Even if we wanted to, we donâ€™t know how to,” Andrew retorted.
“Stubborn as always, I see.” The tilt of the rider’s head suggested he was smiling. “Do you want a demonstration of why you should leave?” he asked. Without waiting for a reply, he raised a hand and a crackling bolt of darkness flew directly at Andrew.
Lydia leapt between them and threw up her shield. The imapct forced her back a couple of steps, but she managed to stop it. Unfortunately she had a feeling their opponent was holding back.
“And you are beginning to get annoying,â€ he said. â€œWhere did you learn to do that?”
“Everybody seems to be asking me that today.” Lydia didnâ€™t let her shield waver. “I wish I knew, but I donâ€™t remember.”
“You donâ€™t remember?” The Rider sounded incredulous. “How can you not remember how you learned to make a shield? Itâ€™s a bit weak, but itâ€™s not something you just pick up.”
Lydia didnâ€™t reply. Sheâ€™d noticed his surprise at her answer had distracted him. She concentrated on the energy sheâ€™d used to make the shield and gathered it in her hand before throwing it at him. A small fireball flew across the clearing, only to be deflected with a wave of his hand.
“And here I was trying to play nice,â€ he said. â€œBlock this!” He fired two dark bolts at once.
Lydia just about managed to hold the shield between Andrew and the Rider, though she staggered to her knees, and the shield disappeared even as the bolt dissipated. The other bolt raced for Karen. Korrig leapt in front of it and raised a wall of earth. It blocked the attack, but shattered under the impact. Shards of rock hard soil lacerated the dwarf’s face and body, even passing through his mail shirt. Korrig gave a broken sort of groan and collapsed to the ground, bleeding profusely.
There was a moment of shocked silence. Even the Rider seemed taken aback.
“What just happened, Eb?” he asked after a moment.
“I â€“ I donâ€™t know,” the Unicorn replied. “I’ve never seen a shield turn on its creator like that.” It seemed she might say more, but Kimi gave a shattering cry and leapt for the Rider’s throat. The Rider made an abrupt gesture swept Kimi sideways before she could connect. She crashed into a tree, bounced and landed in a heap, legs akimbo, and lay there looking dazed.
Behind her Lydia heard Andrew give a gasp. She glanced round and saw him kneeling on the ground gasping as if he was winded.
â€œWhat-â€ she began, but the rider interrupted her.
“Enough of this!” Another larger wave of darkness left his hand and encompassed the clearing. Lydia tried to re-summon her shield but couldnâ€™t manage it. The wave of darkness hit her and the world went black.
Mela peeked out from behind the tree the Rider had hidden her behind before he confronted the other humans. Sheâ€™d watched the confrontation, and it had scared her because she had some idea what it meant.
“Well that went badly,” he said to Ebona as he looked down at the three unconscious teens. “How the hell could she do that? And what the hell did she mean she doesnâ€™t know how she knows?”
“She was telling the truth. She knows she learned it somewhere, but she has no idea when or where. On the upside, she should be able to teach the other two. Maybe they’re better equipped for this than you thought. Iâ€™m more worried about what happened to the dwarf. Shields donâ€™t do that!”
“Excuse me,” Mela said timidly as she came out into the clearing. The rider turned to look at her as she continued. “I think someone else broke it. Someone with Earth Powers took control of his shield from within and… well, you saw what happened. The stories Aunt Lori used to tell me said the dragons used to do it during the first war â€“ before they managed to block us from fighting them.”
“Eb?” he asked.
“She could be right,” Ebona replied, “I’ve heard stories like that as well. But I would have sensed one of them if they’d intervened in the fight. All the Speakers here would…”
“Hmm…” The rider tapped his tongue against the roof of his mouth in a thoughtful manner. “Not a dragon then. But it have been another speaker? Or perhaps a human?”
“Until today I would have said no, but given what happened it must be possible. But it wasnâ€™t a dragon. That much Iâ€™m sure of.”
â€œWhat about a goblin?” Mela asked.
There was a meditative pause from Ebona and then, â€œYes, of course. It could have been a goblin.”
“I see,” he flipped back his hood and looked down at the unconscious dwarf again with an unreadable expression. “Can you heal him?”
Ebona tilted her head forward and touched the dwarf with her horn for a long moment before raising her head.
“No,” she said regretfully. “Whatever did this to him corrupted his essence at the same time. Thatâ€™s definitely a dragon trick.”
“I see,” he said. “Well that does not bode well.”Â He dismounted and knelt down and prodded at a broken up circlet which had slipped from the dwarf grasp when he collapsed. Then he looked over at the ljos-alf who was lying nearby. â€œInteresting. This oneâ€™s different.â€ He gatheredÂ up the pieces.
“Are you going to take their bracelets … or his anyway?” Ebona asked.
The rider’s eyes narrowed and Mela knew he was considering it.
“Iâ€™m tempted. I know which way she’ll jump when they find out what’s going on, but I donâ€™t entirely trust his judgement. Then again, having strange ideas isn’t a crime on its own. Separating him from it now that heâ€™s bonded with it would be cruel.â€
â€œThat sounds like a no,” Ebona said. â€œSo we try to get to the light heart bracelet first?”
“Looks that way.” He didnâ€™t sound happy about the idea.
“That will be dangerous for us,” Ebona said.
“I know, but it could be worse.”
“Excuse me, but does it have to be her bracelet?” Mela nodded to the unconscious brunnette.
“Itâ€™s not like the others are active,” he said.
Mela tilted her head at him, delighted to know something that he didnâ€™t.
“The Storm Heart Bracelet is, though the storm warrior is far too young to be summoned yet. But Queen Valeria has that one, so it might not be wise to go after it,” she said. “But I think the Life Heart Bracelet is as well. There was a Life Warrior among the warriors who were here about twenty years ago, and it’d explain the interference I got in the forest.”
“What do you think?” The rider asked Ebona.
“She could be right. If she is, it doesnâ€™t matter which we go after first. The life one would be safer and it could get us access to she who was Elaranor. Which might be useful. Sheâ€™s supposed to be the most… um… communicative of the Coreâ€™s Guardians.”
“Hmm…” He looked at Mela. “Can that thing tell us which is closest?” He pointed at the pendant.
“It can do that.”